28 January 2011

Should Parents Get A Vote For Their Children?

I'm regularly observe that many of the problems of capitalism arise from it doing its job too well. Capitalism tends to reward those who produce in proportion to the value of what they produce, and denies rewards to those who do not. The trouble is that lots of people in our society don't produce enough to live a decent life, often through no fault of their own, and some other system not designed to maximize productivity needs to be in place to address this issue.

Our political system is much the same. If you look at who is suffering and who is thriving in the American political system, you see a pattern. Groups of people who vote reliably do well. Groups of people who vote rarely or not at all do poorly. Our political system does a quite decent job of translating the preferences of people who vote into policies that favor them. But, just as capitalism ruthlessly ignores the wants and needs of those who do not produce, our political system ruthlessly ignores the wants and needs of those who do not vote.

For example, the United States has one of the weakest welfare states in the developed world. Its unemployment system is a pathetically stingy. Everyone else in the developed world had universal health care decades ago, and we will be lucky to get some reasonable approximation of it by 2014 when the health care reform takes effect. We have proportionately more people who are poor, and are less generous towards the poor than other developed nations. The portion of the cost of getting a higher education paid by the student (which makes higher education unavailable to many poor students) in the United States is greater than almost any other developed country in the world. Few countries in the world have less social class mobility.

This is not a coincidence. For seniors, who vote extremely reliably, we have had universal single payer health care and a minimum income system that keeps almost everyone out of poverty for many decades. But, for young adults, who vote least reliably, and for children, who are prohibited by law from voting, our social safety net is very weak. While government fiat means that we have very few poor seniors (who, if they are poor at that point arguably are themselves to blame for their situation to a great extent), the poverty rate for children in the United States is far in excess of the poverty rate for the nation as a whole, despite the fact that almost everyone agrees that children, who after all cannot choose their parents, have done nothing to deserve their lot in life.

Pedatricians are among the worst paid physicians in our medical system, and pedatric physician specialties face chronic shortfalls. Foster care conditions (and the conditions in the orphanages that were common place before foster care almost completely replaced it) are routinely dismal, with victimization rate of those within them rivaling those of prisons (which are populated by another class of people who cannot vote).

It is probably not coincidental that the low participation rate in American elections, one of the lowest in the world of any democracy, whether or not it is in a developed country, with non-participation disproportionately found among the less well off and less well educated and the young, has elected officials who have produced one of the world's weakest social safety nets.

For this reason, I have long been inclined to think that systemic efforts to improve voter turnout are the key to progressive change in American public policy. There is no reason that the United States shouldn't be able to secure the kind of voter turnout among eligible voters that is found in Australia or France.

But, even improved turnout among eligible voters would not solve the problem that American public policy systemically neglects children, although it might improve it somewhat because parents with minor children are disproportionately non-voters.

Now, of course, while one could low the voting age, there are certainly limits to the extent to which that can work. Two year olds simply aren't equipped to evaluate political candidates.

But, there is an easy alternative. Parents while children who can't vote could be given the right to vote on their behalf. There a few ways that this could be handled, mostly relating to which parent should have that right. But, they are hardly insurmountable. For example, each parent could get an additional half a vote per child not eligible to vote.

This would be the last frontier in truly universal sufferage, and many lower income parents might find it worth their while to vote simply because they got a greater say, solving the turnout problem in part as well.

Would it work? I'm not aware of any place that has tried. But, there is certainly a strong argument to be made that notwithstanding the flaws of the political campaign process, lobbying, and so forth, that almost all democracies do a reasonably good rough justice job of representing the people who vote, and that improving voter turnout and expanding the franchise to appropriately give weigh to the interests of children would shift the public policies that those democracies produce accordingly.

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